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Kerr-McGee Corp. v. Farley

ELR Citation: 26 ELR 21099
Nos. No. 95-0438 MV, 915 F. Supp. 273/(D.N.M., 06/08/1995) district court stay of federal jurisdiction

The court rules that the Price-Anderson Act does not bar, under an exception to the tribal exhaustion doctrine, Native American tribal court jurisdiction over an action against corporations operating a uranium processing mill on the Navajo Reservation in alleged violation of tribal law. Under the tribal exhaustion doctrine, tribal court remedies should be exhausted before the matter is heard in federal court. The court first notes that the doctrine does not strip it of jurisdiction, as the court retains both federal question and diversity jurisdiction. U.S. Supreme Court precedent requires, not as a jurisdictional prerequisite, but as a matter of respect, that the court allow the tribal court to first hear and determine the challenge to its jurisdiction. The court next rejects plaintiffs' argument for the application in this case of an exception to the exhaustion doctrine where tribal court jurisdiction patently violates an express jurisdictional prohibition. Although the Price-Anderson Act preempts conflicting state law or regulations, Native American tribes and the federal government are dual sovereigns. Plaintiffs incorrectly assert that because the power to hear nuclear tort claims was not expressly delegated to tribal courts in the Price-Anderson Act, the Navajo nation has no jurisdiction over this matter. Native American tribes do not derive their sovereign powers from congressional delegation. In addition, civil jurisdiction presumptively lies in the tribal court unless affirmatively limited by a specific treaty provision or federal statute. The Price-Anderson Act and its amendments are devoid of any mention of "Indians," "tribes," or "tribal-court jurisdiction." The court also rejects the argument that the tribal exhaustion rule is inapplicable to those corporations that have not conducted activities on Navajo tribal land. This is a factual dispute which should be heard in the forum whose jurisdiction is being challenged. The court therefore stays the federal court proceedings until the tribal court proceedings have been exhausted.

Counsel for Plaintiffs
Michael R. Comeau
Carpenter, Comeau, Maldegen, Nixon & Templeman
Coronado Bldg.
141 E. Palace Ave., Santa Fe NM 87504
(505) 982-4611

Counsel for Defendants
Kevin Gover
Gover, Stetson & Williams
2501 Rio Grande Blvd. NW, Albuquerque NM 87104
(505) 842-6961